October 02, 2008


Schubert: Piano Sonata in A, D. 959; Six Moments Musicaux, D. 780. Martin Helmchen, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Ries: Piano Sonatas in E-flat major, Op. 11, No. 1, and F minor, Op. 11, No. 2; Sonatina in A minor, Op. 45. Susan Kagan, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

William Lawes: Harp Consorts (complete). Maxine Eilander, harp; Les Voix Humaines (Stephen Stubbs, theorbo and guitar; David Greenberg, baroque violin; Susie Napper and Margaret Little, violas da gamba). ATMA Classique. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     Beethoven presented enormous challenges to all composers of his time and afterwards – challenges they met in varying ways, with various degrees of success. Schubert’s last three piano sonatas – the A major is the second of them – were written just a year after Beethoven’s death, in the final year of Schubert’s own life, and are largely successful attempts to take the form in new directions and out of Beethoven’s shadow. The lyricism and singing quality of the Sonata in A in some ways echo Beethoven – especially earlier Beethoven – but Schubert’s structure is different (less wedded to traditional sonata form, for one thing), and his alternation of lyrical passages with intense ones speaks more thoroughly of the Romantic era that both Beethoven and Schubert ushered in, each in his own way. It is worth remembering that Schubert’s last sonatas are nevertheless youthful works – the composer died at age 31. Certainly Martin Helmchen, who was 25 when he made this recording last year, gets this aspect right. The sonata practically overflows with emotion, although it never gets out of control or sloppy; this is a performance that eschews virtuosity for its own sake. Helmchen’s pedal use is particularly well considered, especially in the final Rondo, the work’s longest movement. The opening Allegro is perhaps a bit too diffuse, but this is otherwise a highly notable performance. The Six Moments Musicaux are lovely, too, their flowing quality especially evident in Helmchen’s hands. The third and shortest of them, marked Allegretto moderato, is the most wistful and charming. The sixth and longest, simply marked Allegretto, becomes a little long-winded here; but again, on balance, these are highly enjoyable and well-thought-out readings, and PentaTone’s SACD recording is top-notch, bringing forth every nuance of both sound and silence.

     Ferdinand Ries had a closer relationship with Beethoven than Schubert did and perhaps felt his influence loom larger. The three piano works on Susan Kagan’s CD – the first in a planned series devoted to Ries’ sonatas and sonatinas – were all written during Beethoven’s lifetime, the two sonatas around 1807-8 and the sonatina around 1811-2. The F minor sonata is by far the most interesting work here, sounding again and again like Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata, written a decade earlier. Ries’ work has drive, determination and deep emotion, although its ending is a disappointment: it simply flies away and evaporates instead of reaching a climax. Still, it is well constructed and definitely worth hearing. The E-flat sonata is of lesser interest, with more serenity and less drama, although its theme-and-variations finale shows considerable inventiveness. The two-movement Sonatina in A minor has an expressive opening movement and a brighter second one, and comes across as something of a miniature. Kagan plays all the works with enthusiasm, and they are certainly intriguing enough to make the prospect of additional Ries piano CDs an appealing one.

     Long before Beethoven, Schubert and Ries, and long before the piano, there were other stringed instruments of choice in the 17th century. William Lawes (1602-1645) was a master particularly of the viol and the lyra viol (the latter being a small bass viol popular primarily in England). Lawes was attached to the court of the ill-fated Charles I, whose defeat and beheading in 1649 led to Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum; in fact, Lawes was shot to death by a Parliamentarian in 1645 during one of the battles between Charles’ supporters and opponents. This “Father of Musick” (so named by the king himself) was highly skilled not only in compositions for viols but also in those for harp and small consort, as the new recording by Maxine Eilander and Les Voix Humaines shows clearly. This is the first complete recording of Lawes’ 11 harp consorts, which are well balanced between major and minor: three in G, three in G minor, three in D, and two in D minor. They are also remarkably well balanced among the instruments, flowing naturally among the players with the harp being first among equals. Yet these are far from 17th-century background music: Lawes was fond of mixing disparate themes, allowing pastoral simplicity to reign for a while, only to be interrupted by something more outlandish. The harp consorts contain a number of these unexpected juxtapositions, which led to dislike of Lawes’ music after his death but which nowadays make his pieces sound more interesting and, in a sense, more “modern” than the more even-tempered works of other 17th-century composers. This fine two-CD set also includes a duo for guitar and harp that neatly plays the two instruments’ different string sounds against each other. The Lawes set is a find for anyone interested in out-of-the-ordinary 17th-century ensemble music.

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